Cauli wobbles: farmers' fear as harvests rot

First purple sprouting broccoli, now cauliflowers. It's been a bad year for brassicas, reports Jonathan Brown

A bone-chilling easterly wind was blowing in off the misty Wash yesterday past North Sea Camp, the open prison which once incarcerated Lord Archer, and across the flat fields.

Normally, at this time of year, these fertile acres would be a hive of activity. Gangs of pickers would be hard at work stripping the stalks of the purple sprouting broccoli to meet the growing demand among supermarkets for a once unfashionable brassica which has soared in popularity thanks to its new-found status as a super-food rich in folic acid.

But this year there is only the smell of rotting vegetables on the wind, and a few acres of what might yet be salvaged after arctic winter conditions wrecked the harvest.

For Sarah Pettitt, 37, a former food industry technician who now works alongside her brother and parents as the fourth generation on their farm near Boston, Lincolnshire, the effects of the cold weather have been a disaster. The Pettitts have spent the past week ploughing one million frost-damaged purple sprouting broccoli plants back into the soil to prevent the spread of disease. Eighty-five per cent of the crop is gone, leaving a bill of up to £60,000. "It is devastating in terms of the enthusiasm and passion you have for producing world-class produce. At this time of year we would expect to see a lovely field of lush sprouting broccoli. But look at this – it is heartbreaking," she says.

The healthy broccoli that still stands is outnumbered by withered plants. What has done for the crop are the days in December in which the mercury plunged to -18C, well below the level even this hardy winter vegetable can withstand. Wind chill factors saw those temperatures plummet even lower, making yesterday's frigid conditions seem positively balmy. The plants began to rot after frost got into the stalk.

Twelve months of work already went into the broccoli. The land had to be prepared; there were labour and fuel costs as well as lime and fertiliser. "It is just expense, expense, expense," adds Ms Pettitt, who is chairman of the board of vegetable and potato growers for the National Farmers' Union. "And then at the end of it all you have nothing. What makes it so frustrating is that after all that effort it is the one thing you can't control – the weather – which has devastated everything."

Of course it has always been thus for farmers, but the increased incidences of extreme weather events – cold, wet, drought and wind – have made the production of some crops even more perilous. Now farmers are demanding greater help from the Government and their scientists to come up with some practical solutions to the new levels of uncertainty.

In dark loamy fields in an area which provides three-quarters of British vegetables, huge swathes which should be under cultivation are now devoid of any plant matter after farmers set about ploughing in their defeated crops in recent days.

Only a few patches of unhappy-looking cauliflowers remain, as they have been more affected than broccoli by the ravages of recent months.

Phillip Effingham, chairman of the Brassica Growers' Association, believes 85 per cent of the winter cauliflower crop has already been lost. It is the third bad year in a row for growers, who have worked hard to reverse the fortunes of a vegetable that has struggled to find favour with modern diners.

His own farm also near Boston has lost 550 acres already. "It is going to have an upward impact on price although it is impossible to predict how much at the moment. People are looking at the risk of growing that crop against the margin of profit and thinking about going into things like wheat which have a lower risk. The result will be more food miles for imported vegetables," he said. Ironically it was the spate of warmer winters since the last wipeout in 1983 that encouraged growers to switch to higher quality, softer varieties that were less tolerant of cold. "We have had some bad years but this is the worst we have seen in a long time," he adds.